Michael Joseph | 2020 (6 August) | 464p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is 490 BC and King Darius of Persia wants nothing more than to bring the Greek states within his empire, whether they like it or not. Athens is a very different place, with no kings but an Assembly which allows every free man a voice and a vote, deciding how the city will be run. And now it must defend itself. Athen’s most respected and admired citizens now pick up their spears and shields and march to Marathon. Among them is Xanthippus, father to a small boy called Pericles. Marathon is just the beginning of the Persian Wars. Almost ten years later the Greek states, uneasily united, march and sail into battle once more, clashing against Persian forces on sea and on land, at a place called Thermopylae. All those left behind in Athens must wait to discover their fate.
Conn Iggulden is a phenomenal writer. His historical fiction is outstanding. It doesn’t matter what period of history he writes about, he brings it to life and makes the events and people of the past real, exciting and vital. This time the author takes us to a tumultuous period in ancient history, the Persian Wars. The novel is framed by well-known and familiar battles, of Marathon and Thermopylae, but they are given fresh treatment here because Conn Iggulden takes his time to make us really care about these people while also making us fascinated by their society and culture.
We spend time in Persia and with the Persian army, and it’s a world away from Greece in so many ways. It is exotic and dangerous with an incredibly powerful fleet and army. But most of the novel is spent in Athens, particularly with Xanthippus, an honourable man, a loving family man, a hero, but he also has his flaws and must suffer the whims and political games and rivalries of the Assembly. I found this absolutely engrossing. The political system of the Assembly seems chaotic and harsh. And we’re reminded that this political ‘freedom’ was only for male citizens, who were vastly outnumbered by women, children and slaves. It all becomes even more intriguing when Sparta joins the mix and we watch Athenian and Spartan men assess each other, sum each other up, and try and find ways to work together in war against a common enemy. The tension is there throughout as Persia builds its army and navy, ready to take its vengeance on Athens.
The battle sequences are spectacular. Conn Iggulden knows his stuff and his knowledge shows throughout but he also knows how to write thrilling battle scenes. The naval battles are fantastic and so too are the battles of Marathon and Thermopylae. So much is at stake.
The Gates of Athens isn’t just about battles and the men who fight them. Conn Iggulden doesn’t neglect the other half of society. I was really intrigued by our glimpses into the homelife of Xanthippus and his wife Agariste. While there is much that seems familiar and timeless about their relationship, there is much that is very different. Their home is strange, with slaves living in a chamber dug into the earth under the house. Xanthippus sleeps apart from his wife. Slaves are trained to kill to protect their mistress and Agariste is prepared to kill her own children if the Persians come. I found it completely fascinating.
Athens itself dominates the novel. It is more than a city, it is an entity, beloved by its founding goddess Athena, and it is also an ideal. Its laws and codes, the rights of its free men, are all religiously pursued and defended, in its courts, Assembly and on the battlefield. Conn Iggulden examines all of the various aspects of Athens, and Sparta, and shows both its strengths and its failings. Excellent!
The Gates of Athens begins a new series and I can’t wait to read more of it. Whereas Xanthippus (and Athens itself) is the central figure of this first book, it seems likely that his son Pericles will become increasingly significant and I am fascinated to read more about the origins and development of Athen’s most famous statesman. His remarkable story is in such safe hands.
The Blood of Gods (Emperor V)
Stormbird (Wars of the Roses I)
Trinity (Wars of the Roses II)
Bloodline (Wars of the Roses III)
Ravenspur: Rise of the Tudors (Wars of the Roses IV)
The Falcon of Sparta